Sunday, October 19, 2014

When the Inmates Ran the Asylum

Ralph (Robert Christian): I was in that taxi cab, but I didn't rob it. It was my cousin. He's crazy.

Arthur (Al Pacino): What's his name?

Ralph: I don't know. I mean he lives out in Hillsberry.

Arthur: You don't know your cousin's name?

In many ways, Norman Jewison's "... And Justice For All," which debuted on this day in 1979, was better suited for current times, given its focus on corruption and injustice.

There is always an audience for that sort of theme, I suppose, because some people are predisposed to believe they have been victimized in some way, and I don't really see that changing. No matter how much we may reach for what we believe is a utopian society, human nature (being what it is) will pull in the opposite direction.

The story of "... And Justice For All" could have been written in the early 21st century. A longtime judge (played by John Forsythe, who really did look like a judge), the very picture of establishment privilege, was accused of rape. And the fact was that he was guilty, although he didn't say so to anyone.

He was already loathed by just about every lawyer who worked in his courtroom, including Al Pacino's character, a defense attorney. The judge asked for Pacino to defend him because he thought it would be good public relations. He believed he would be acquitted if the attorney who was defending him in court was also known to hate him.

"Inevitably, it's going to look as if the fix is in," Roger Ebert wrote, "unless the defense is conducted by a lawyer who's clearly on record as despising Forsythe."

That's a pretty cynical way of looking at things — unless you happen to be the product of a corrupt system.

It's also kind of daring for director Norman Jewison, given the many characters and subplots competing for the audience's attention.

As Ebert observed, the movie "has so many characters doing so many things to, with and against Pacino that it's a triumph of film making when all the stories end in the same movie."

When I say there was a lot going on, you can take that to the bank.

Perhaps the wildest character was played by Jack Warden. Warden played another judge who was as crazy as any character you'll find in the movies. He was a bit of a thrill seeker, spending his lunch breaks sitting on the ledge of the courthouse's fifth floor and flying helicopters, carefully calculating how far he could travel and return safely on the fuel he had — and then flying a little farther than that, just to see if he could make it back.

He took Pacino on such a ride — and, on at least one occasion, he fired a gun in his courtroom.

"Gentlemen," he said, "need I remind you you're in a court of law?"

I never have figured out the purpose of Warden's character in that movie. His helicopter flight with Pacino may have been good for a little comic relief, but, otherwise, I saw little relevance to the story.

Unless the point was that the lunatics were (and still are) running the asylum. Of course, that could have been it — or there could have been more to it, and I just didn't notice with all the competing subplots.

"... And Justice For All" received two Oscar nominations — Pacino for Best Actor and Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson for Best Original Screenplay — and lost both.